Leg Day 101: The Complete Guide to Lower Body Workouts

Woman jumping in fitness clothes.

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

When we talk about working out, all too often, we discuss upper bodies: how to strengthen, grow, and/or tone our abs, pecs, and biceps are all common topics of conversation in the fitness space. However, we tend to forget that our lower bodies also need training; without a regular focus on our lower halves and all the muscles there, we'll end up imbalanced, both metaphorically and physically.

Enter leg day here to help us gain strength and endurance throughout the vital body parts that carry us around constantly. So what exactly is leg day, what are the most important exercises for it, and how often should you do it? To find out, we asked WeStrive App trainers Cory Becker, Amanda Kay, and Tommy Hockenjos. Read on to learn everything you need to know about leg day.

Meet the Expert

What Is Leg Day?

It's pretty straightforward and doesn't require much work to comprehend: Hockenjos says that leg day is any day "where the primary focus of your workout is to improve strength, endurance, or motor control of the lower extremity muscles." That means that on leg day, while you may still do some upper bodywork, your main objective is to work the lower half of your body. You can focus on improving only strength, control, or endurance, or multiple elements of those three.

What does that entail? Kay says that the four main muscle groups to be worked on leg day are our glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Becker notes these muscles are considered groups because, for example, "there are over 16 muscles in your thigh area alone, but they all have to work together." In addition, he notes that leg day also incorporates core and back muscles. Because of all the various muscles worked, he suggests that "you should try to put it first after a rest day."

What Are the Most Common Leg Day Exercises?

The chances are that if you exercise regularly, you're already familiar with most, if not all, of the commonly performed leg day exercises. Becker says that the most common leg day workouts are:

In terms of weight involvement and other muscles used, Becker says that for these exercises, "your legs are the primary muscles used to move the weight even if your arms or core are involved to hold the weight or balance."

Hockenjos says that because there are so many different leg day exercises to pick from, "to make it more simple, they can all be broken down into movement patterns."  He divides them into four groups:

  • Locomotion, which includes running, walking, lunges, and crawls
  • Hip dominant moves, such as Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and hinge movements
  • Knee dominant moves like squat variations
  • Triple extension, where you are extending your hips, knees, and ankles, as with jumping, plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and calf raises

How Many Leg Days Should You Have Per Week?

The fact that we divide our upper bodies into numerous zones and workout days, then lump our entire lower body into one day, might seem strange to some. Because of that imbalance, it makes sense to do leg day differently than the way you'd rotate through days of back and biceps, and chest and triceps. But, of course, how you choose to incorporate leg day into your workout regime is dependent on your goals.

Kay tells us that for beginners, one day per week may be sufficient because it's "challenging to learn, and you'll benefit from plenty of recovery time between without overtraining." On the other hand, Hockenjos thinks one day a week of leg day is enough if you're training for a specific sport and need to focus on that.

Once you've made progress with your exercise and no longer consider yourself a beginner, more frequent leg work is a great idea. Kay suggests two to three leg days per week as you progress, focusing on different muscle groups each time. In terms of how to divide that up, she suggests that "one day is a heavy compound movement such as squatting or hip thrusts while the others may focus more on the smaller muscle groups, lighter weight to improve form, or explosive exercises like the box jump to develop power and speed." Becker recommends that you "find your three favorite leg day exercises and rotate another two-to-three exercises into your workouts for three-to-four weeks at a time." Both Hockenjos and Kay stress that you should give yourself at least two days between leg days to ensure your muscles have proper rest time.

When to Skip Leg Day

You may have aspirations for multiple leg days a week, but it's always good to know when to scale back on your workouts. When it comes to leg day, Kay says it should be skipped if "you are experiencing excessive joint pain, muscle soreness or currently sick." In these instances, she recommends that you either take an extra rest day, skip leg day for the week, or focus on "doing only gentle mobility work."

Because some cardio workouts like running and walking also count as leg day, if you're experiencing pain or soreness in your lower body, or if you're sick, you're better off skipping those exercises, as well. Becker stresses that you should always " listen to your body and protect your knees."

The Takeaway

Leg day is the commonly used term for any day that you exercise, and your workout focuses on lower body moves instead of upper body ones. There are many leg day workout moves, including squats, jumps, and hamstring curls. If you're new to working out, your best bet is to start with one leg day per week. Once you've grown more advanced, consider doing several leg days a week and cycling through both muscle groups and exercise focuses. Leg day should be skipped if you're experiencing pain or soreness in the muscles in your lower body or if you're feeling ill. Strengthening muscles like our glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves will help us become better exercisers and have better functioning bodies overall.

  • What muscles should leg day exercises target?

    Lower body workouts should target all the major muscles in your legs, including your calves, glutes, and hips. Many leg day exercises will also work to stabilize your core.

  • How long should your leg day exercise sessions last?

    Leg day exercise sessions will usually run you at least 20 minutes, and up to a full hour (even longer if you tack on a full body HIIT or cardio session).

  • What type of cardio should I do on leg day?

    Leg day exercises have a tendency to make your body really sore, so you might prefer to complement your lower body workout with something less strenuous, like a light walk or swim. Alternately, some leg day exercises are already cardio-intensive (think jump squats and lunges) so they can double as your heart-pumping workout.

  • What exercises should I do the day after leg day?

    In the interest of not completely wearing yourself out, it's best to alternate your area of focus with daily workouts. So, the day after leg day, try focusing solely on cardio or switching to a different area of the body, such as arms or core. And if you're feeling especially sore, there's no harm in taking a day off to stretch and rest.

Article Sources
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  1. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on healthCurr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(4):209-216. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8

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